23 May 2009

Relation/Couch/Dreaming by Diane Schenker

Relation/Couch/Dreaming by Diane Schenker
Finishing Line Press, 2009 27 pages, $12

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

Diane Schenker’s book takes its title from her poem “Relation/Couch/Dreaming,” which was inspired by the (untitled) drawing on the cover of the book--a wonderfully suggestive black and white drawing by Morris Yarowsky depicting a man and woman on a couch, together yet apart, with an inset of a reclining nude woman above the seated woman’s head (a painting? her dream?) The title poem, with strong, spare language, makes the most of the ambiguities and mysteries in the drawing: “Thigh. / Line around under line. We. / Ground breaks space breaks line. Apart. / Couch. / Touching not feeling touching feeling.”

The poems in this collection have several recurring themes: family relationships, the natural world, death. The language is unsentimental and unsparing, but also vivid, with striking images. In Part I, the poems describe both the domestic interiors of loss (“What is it I keep bumping into / as I carom restlessly from room to room? / Not your corpse exactly though / it may as well be since your / deadness takes up so much space”) and confronting death in the natural world: “Sliding off / above treeline, face of the earth now faceless, dropping / off to nothing, leaving a bowl of sky and death”). The language is sharp, tough, and precise. The two final poems in Part III are about the speaker’s parents as they near the end of their lives. With characteristic emotional honesty, she concludes that the best thing she can do in the face of their illness and debility is to try to make them laugh. Although a few of the poems shade off into less interesting language (“Spring’s busy clutter brings summer’s lethe / . . . Seasons past in a drawer / pulled out for occasional remembering”), the majority of these poems have strong, precise, compelling images grounded either in objects in the domestic world of indoors (“The mirror reflects on life, whether shades or real / stoic and glassy behind its spatter of spit / and toothpaste”) or in the natural world, especially the poems in Part II as in these lines from “Branches”: “Bright bones bristle out of the earth, stiff hair / twisting, scratch the sun’s eye blood red it / glares but with such a cry bones crack.”

Many of the images have the intensity and magical quality of dreams, and in fact the collection as a whole can be seen as a series of meditations and variations on the three words in the title: relation (with family, with the natural world); couch (evoking the domestic space where we coexist with family members, together but sometimes apart); dreaming (what the poet, any poet, is constantly doing through language and images). Schenker’s chapbook is well worth reading.